The recent and chequered history of the Australian women's eight took a turn for the better on Sunday when a makeshift crew boasting six Olympic debutants continued their surprising campaign towards the 2012 Games final.

The women finished second in their heat to the powerhouse US crew on day two of the Olympic regatta at Eton Dorney, edging out the British boat which in recent months has become an arch-rival, but finished third. When the British pushed with 600 metres to go, the Australians were challenged but rebounded.

The self-dubbed ''motley crew'' have struggled in more recent times with the unwanted tag. Crew member Sarah Cook said last week that some in the squad in London did not believe they deserved to be here. Coach Nick Garratt said after the first race, that attitude had morphed into something much stronger within the team.

''Right from the get go we had this 'We want to show them' attitude,'' Garratt said. ''It was seen by some who were in the squad, who had done all the work, that these girls had not. Well they had done all the work.''

Famously torn apart by a one-woman controversy in Athens, and virtually decommissioned after finishing last in the Beijing final, the women's eight was put together in April and qualified for London at the last possible opportunity, when they rowed to an upset victory in Lucerne in May. By contrast, the gold medal favourite US crew have rowed together for six years. Romania - regarded as Australia's biggest challenge for a bronze medal - have been together almost as long.

''We need to go after them [the Romanians] in the repechage,'' Garratt said, adding the eight had improved with each performance and had finished ahead of the British crew in three of its past four races. ''Technically, I was very happy with us [on Sunday] we managed an even split the whole race which is very tough.''

The eight's second place completed a good day for the Australian crews with reigning Olympic champions David Crawshay and Scott Brennan easing to victory in the repechage of the men's double scull, defeating the second placed Ukrainians by 2½-boat lengths.

''Today was what we should have done yesterday,'' Crawshay said after the crew's disappointing fourth place on day one. ''We had a good start, more push, and after 20 strokes we knew we were going to get a good one.''

The men, whose preparation going into the Games has been limited, were rowing competitively for only the second time since the international regatta at Lucerne. Forced into the repechage after failing to finish in the top three in Saturday's heat, they now row in the semi-finals on Tuesday.

Lightweight double scullers Bronwen Watson and Hannah-Every Hall rowed a solid heat in the rain to finish three-quarters of a crew length behind the Greek crew, moving straight into their semi-final. Lightweight men's double scullers Roderick Chisholm and Thomas Gibson finished third in their heat behind the two medal favourites Great Britain and New Zealand. They face a repechage on Tuesday.

In a regatta tipped to prove a litmus test for the battle for medals between Australia and Great Britain - both teams are aiming for six medals - the heightened atmosphere at the rowing, even during the early heats and repechages, was fervent.

CAROLINE WILSON